Must Paganism Be Transgressive?

Must Paganism Be Transgressive? October 22, 2015

cauldron 1200x900Should Paganism always be transgressive? Do we lose something when a radical spiritual movement starts to be accepted by the mainstream? Or is it more complicated than that? I’d like to offer three examples for your consideration.

Our first example comes from the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held October 15 – 19 in Salt Lake City. My Facebook feed had a near-constant stream of posts from the Parliament last weekend, where numerous Pagans were full participants alongside representatives of mainstream and minority religions from across the world. The Parliament isn’t quite as mainstream as a Protestant church on a suburban street corner, but if you want acceptance, that’s about as good as it gets.

Next is this excellent Witchcraft retrospective by Dana Corby, Wicca Was the Tantra of the West. Dana says

I’m old enough to remember what the Craft was like ‘in the day.’ It was highly sexual. Many rituals included Great Rite in true, and it was practically de rigueur to screw your Witch friends.

Dana does not romanticize the not-so-sexy complications that caused, but laments the whitewashing of Wicca and says “I don’t know how to get back to our roots, I can only watch what’s happened – is still happening – and feel a huge sense of loss.”

Our final example is from the good folks at Gods & Radicals, who are getting ready to publish their first printed journal, titled A Beautiful Resistance. Peter Grey has written the forward, and he says

it is not that we believe, it is that these are our lived experiences and that we are compelled by them to act. Religion is used to bind, but none can bind the throng of voices that speak to us, through us, which cannot be medicalised as opium dream, madness, or sheer hysteria.

You don’t get much more transgressive than the witchcraft of Peter Grey.

This is the conundrum of modern Paganism. Are we supposed to be radicals tearing at the edges of “proper” society? Are we supposed to be introducing Gods and magic to the mainstream? Or perhaps, subverting the mainstream from within?

Transgression is necessary. Any society or culture has its rules and norms. Some of these are dictated by autocratic rulers or are adopted through the democratic process, but most evolve on their own. Regardless of how they are formed, they become The Way Things Are Supposed To Be. Most of these have some reasoning behind them – they are (or were at one time) helpful in maintaining a functioning society.

But over time, situations change. Rules and norms that were supposed to serve all are co-opted or perverted to benefit a few. Unintended consequences become more pronounced and more troublesome. Individuals and groups who were left out of the original deliberations – or who were oppressed by them – decide they’ve had enough. The rules don’t work for us, so we change them or we break them or both, even though that upsets those with a vested interest in the status quo.

The first members of the modern Pagan movement were sick of the repression of institutional Christianity and began to imagine living in an earlier, freer time. The Witches Dana Corby writes about were practicing sex magic, but they were also transgressing sexual mores they found unnecessarily restrictive. Contemporary polytheists are revolting against a mainstream culture that tells us there is only one God and a subculture that tells us there are none.

These transgressions are necessary. In each case the rules and norms of society were no longer serving the needs of some of its members. Someone had to stand up and say “this isn’t working, I’m doing something else.”

Successful transgression becomes mainstream.  For decades, homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name.” Police oppression led to the Stonewall riots in 1969, which led to to the first Gay Pride parade in 1970. Fast-forward to 2015 and same sex marriage is legal throughout the United States. It wasn’t that simple, and the fight for full equality is far from over, but the fact that we’re still talking about all of one clerk in one county in one state shows just how far we’ve come.

A good friend who just got married told me “the people at the bridal shop couldn’t have been nicer… especially when they realized they were going to get to sell two dresses and not just one.”

Unitarianism and Universalism were transgressions against orthodox Christianity. They were so successful their ideas made their way into mainline Protestantism, which is one of the reasons the UUA is so small – if you want universalism in your religion, there are lots of places you can get it these days.

Transgression is never perfect. African-Americans were able to march their way to better civil rights laws, but racism and discrimination still exist. Mainstream America may smile at the cute gay couple, but it’s a long way from accepting queerness. We’re happy to let LGBT people into the mainstream, but only if they play by monogamous middle class rules and norms.  The mainstream is bigger than any transgressive movement, and while it may absorb transgressive elements it likes it still overruns elements it doesn’t like.

I’ve seen that in responses to my own Paganism.  “You love Nature? Great, so do I.” “You practice magic? Whatever… but can you do a spell for me?” “You worship many Gods? You’re wrong wrong WRONG!”

Our transgressions help ourselves and they influence the mainstream, but the mainstream only accepts the parts it likes.

Transgression is not depth. Any good religion needs a strong this-world component to it. No matter how close our beliefs and practices bring us to the Gods and spirits, they’re incomplete unless they move us to do something to make the world a better place here and now. Transgressing harmful rules and norms is one way to do that, but transgression for the sake of transgression is just teenage rebellion. That may be a good and necessary thing, but it rarely includes spiritual or political depth.

As I tell people about composing rituals, break rules mindfully. If you need to do something for a good reason and it’s against the rules, break the rules. Breaking rules because you don’t like rules is likely to result in an ineffective ritual.

But depth is often transgressive. Last year’s internet dustup on animal sacrifice had very little to do with animal rights and a lot to do with a fear of people who take their religion seriously.

People who take their religion seriously serve as reminders that this is real. The Gods are real. The ancestors are real. The land, the sky, and the sea are real. And if They’re real then They can affect us, as some of us have been discussing for the past week or so.

Real Gods are a lot scarier than the polytheist next door killing, cleaning, and cooking a chicken in his back yard and seasoning it with prayers and invocations.

Want to make somebody uncomfortable? Hold up a restaurant meal while you pray over your food. Even if you’re a Christian, people will do the “look-but-don’t-look” thing. If you’re a Pagan they’ll stare in amazement. If you’re a Muslim… well, in this country, your response may be considerably less than accepting.

Sit in meditation, salute the sun or moon, carry an empty can with you till you find a recycling bin, turn down an invitation because you have devotional work to do, basically do anything that demonstrates your religion carries obligations and you take them seriously and people are dumbfounded. What do you mean your religion isn’t all about making you feel good about yourself with no effort on your part?

The never ending cycle of transgression and acceptance. To return to our original question, should Paganism always be transgressive? I hope I’ve shown that it’s more complicated than that. Transgression is necessary, and when it is well-done, it will be incorporated into the mainstream. But the mainstream only adopts the parts it likes, the parts that are in alignment with its values – values that are frequently at odds with Pagan values and virtues. Changing the mainstream’s values is a long, hard process.

Some Pagan traditions – most notably Witchcraft – are inherently transgressive. They’re on the front lines of the Pagan movement, pointing out all the ways our culture and our lives are unfair, unjust, and unsustainable, and working to bring them down. Other Pagan traditions teach new values and practices that reinforce them – we’re providing an alternative to the mainstream culture.  Still other traditions teach their practitioners to look deep within – they change the culture by changing individuals.

There’s more than one approach. And if we’re going to build a world where mainstream values are in alignment with our values, we’re going to need them all.

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